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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 00:10 GMT
Korea's presidential campaign heats up
The poll has essentially become a two-way race - between the liberal, human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun and the conservative Lee Hoi-chang, a former Supreme Court judge.
Public opinion polls are banned during the campaign period.
But surveys carried out before the official campaign got under way showed Mr Roh, candidate of the governing Millennium Democratic Party, slightly in the lead.
The election is being billed by some as a battle of the political left and right; by others, as a battle of the generations.
So who are the candidates?
Mr Lee, 67, is the candidate of the opposition Grand National Party and is standing for the country's highest office for the second time.
Born to an elite family in North Korea's Hwanghae province, he grew up in the South from the age of three.
A lawyer by training, at the age of 46, he became the country's youngest Supreme Court judge.
His nickname is "split bamboo" - representing moral uprightness, unyielding against pressure.
His reputation for moral integrity grew when he was appointed head of the Board of Audit and Inspection in 1993, which launched crackdowns on high profile corruption cases.
Mr Lee stood as a presidential candidate of the former ruling New Korea Party - the precursor of the GNP in 1997. But he was narrowly beaten by Kim Dae-jung, who is constitutionally prevented from standing for a second term.
The human rights lawyer
Roh Moo-hyun, 56, was born in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province - the son of a farmer. Mr Roh never attended college but studied at night to become a lawyer.
He began a private law practice - but turned to human rights work after he became involved in the 1981 "Boolim Incident" - when he represented dissident students who had been tortured for possessing dissident literature.
Mr Roh challenged the authority of the military dictatorship of former President Chun Doo-hwan. He was jailed and suspended from practising law in 1987, on charges of helping workers during a strike at Daewoo shipyard.
He was elected to the National Assembly in 1988, and rose to prominence as a forthright member during a parliamentary hearing on the past wrongdoings of the Chun administration.
His support comes from voters in their 30s and 40s, fed up with money politics.
Key election issues include clean government and fighting corruption, political reform and policies towards North Korea.
Dealing with North Korea
The two candidates are most divided over policies towards the North.
Lee Hoi-chang has been a vocal critic of the government's so-called "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North. His views are seen as more in line with the tough policy towards the North taken by the Bush administration in the United States.
If elected, he says he would stop all financial aid to the North, unless it begins to dismantle its alleged nuclear programme.
But he has also offered to hold talks with the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, to resolve the nuclear issue.
Mr Roh says he supports the continuation of exchanges with the North. He has urged the North and the US to negotiate a deal to solve their nuclear dispute.
On economics, Mr Roh says he would continue to back free-market reforms, but favours moves to reduce the wealth gap between the rich and poor.
Mr Lee is viewed as pro-big business. He favours reducing corporate taxes and abolishing investment limits on large businesses.
"This time, although there are many candidates, it's a two party game - the last time that happened was 30 years ago, in 1971," says political and presidential expert, Professor Hahm Sung-deuk, at Korea University.
"It's so close that it's hard to predict who will win - and that just adds to the excitement."
For many people, this election is a referendum on the performance of the current government, which has been mired in a series of corruption scandals.
For others, it's about looking for fresh leadership, and seeing a new generation of politicians taking the helm.
"Kim Dae-jung's administration failed to bring changes to our society, despite his previous promises to the people," said one 20-year-old student, who didn't want to be named.
"Other parties should have an opportunity to show they can do better."
Dealing with the US
One new factor in this election is anti-American sentiment, which is at an all time-high.
It has been fuelled by anger over the recent controversial acquittal of two American soldiers accused of negligent homicide in the deaths of two South Korean teenagers crushed to death by a US armoured vehicle during a training exercise in June.
"This issue has become a critical issue in presidential campaigning," believes Professor Hahm Sung-deuk.
"People thought the current presidential candidate of Grand National Party, Lee Hoi-chang is too close to the US; in contrast, the candidate Roh Moo-hyun, of the MDP is a little bit independent of the US.
"This issue may give a bit of an edge to Roh Moo-hyun now."
But in fact, all the main candidates have called for revisions to the legal code governing the status of the 37,000 American forces stationed in the South, and for President Bush to apologise directly to the nation over the deaths of the two South Korean schoolgirls.
"All the candidates consider this issue to be really important," says Sah Gay-oh, a protester, taking part in a candlelight vigil.
"I don't think it will really boost the chances of any particular candidate."
Candidates are criss-crossing the country to boost their electoral chances and hoping to win the favour of the country's undecided voters - thought to represent 20% of the electorate.
In this knife-edge campaign, every vote counts.
Lee Hoi-chang has been trying to downplay his stern, judicial image, and has been trying to woo younger voters.
In cartoon posters and t-shirts, he is shown smiling, wearing hip hop clothes and listening to music on a walkman. In public, he dyes his hair brown and wears more casual clothes.
For his part, Roh Moo-hyun has refused to dye his hair - saying he likes to be natural. His aides say he once tried Botox to reduce what has now become a trademark deep furrowed line on his forehead - but suffered side-effects.
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